Phish — Van Andel Arena — Grand Rapids, MI 11.11.1996
I CDT, Guelah, CTB, Bag, Sparkle>Brother, Theme, Axilla>Jim
II Timber Ho>Divided, Gumbo, Curtain>Sample>Tweezer, Swept Away>Steep>Maze, Contact, Slave
E Waste, Cavern
Following their Saturday night affair in eastern Michigan Phish rested for a night before the arduous 150 mile trek across the state to play in Grand Rapids for the first time in two years. They had played down the road in Kalamazoo on the Fall 95 tour (which we will get to in a bit) so this 1996 stop followed the pattern of playing Kalamazoo and grand Rapids in alternating order. The first visit to this wonderful, craft beer-filled part of the world was on 12.10.1992 at the old Kalamazoo State Theatre, one of those venerable old venues that can be found throughout the country. This show is a good example of where they were in the early theater days with that tight, rocking jam style that was starting to evolve into the speed jazz of 1993. There is an interesting YEM here with some rotating duet action but otherwise it is pretty much just one of those solid shows that was a fun time live (it was) without any lasting takeaway value. The next year they played Grand Rapids for the first time at the Eastbrook Theatre (possibly called Club Eastbrook at that stage but now it is definitely The Orbit Room), an old timey single screen cinema that was once split to make two not great rooms before being repurposed for music and other events. Phish played here on 08.11.1993 and you can guess what I will say here considering what I always say when we get to talking August ’93 Phish: GO SPIN THIS SHOW!!! It has a debut (Ginseng Sullivan), teases, tons of SL, and a bunch of those high quality jams we laud from this month including an open Jim, a MFMF with vocal jam, a purely nasty Stash, a Mike’s that quote Peter Gabriel, and a Lope that jams on the Simpsons signal if you can believe that. I’m starting to think I might have to just go ahead and do the August ’93 tour reviews at some point with how much I talk those shows up… Anyway, continuing the pattern they returned to Kalamazoo the following Spring, again at the State Theatre on 06.19.1994. This one is a fine example of 1994 with a menacing Stash, tension overload in Lope and a wonderful Reba>Makisupa that deserves your attention. That Fall they were back to Grand Rapids – this time at DeVos Hall – for one of those classic Fall ’94 shows on 11.14.1994. If you like dark jams this one is all for you from the evil outro in the opening MFMF to the hose-filled shred of Maze to one of the biggest, baddest of all the famed ’94 Bowies and on. It’s a raging fun show. We had a blast. And finally, on 10.27.1995 Phish played Kalamazoo (for the last time) at Wings Stadium which is home to the aptly named Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL. This is just another white hot rager in the lead up to Halloween that year but check out the Bowie and Simple for jams and a bunch of setlist rarities (well, now, that is…) including Taste That Surrounds (that period was confusing for this song), Suspicious Minds, Keyboard Army, DFB, and Life on Mars? Okay, that gets us caught up so let’s get regulating, regulators.
This was the last show to fit the alternating pattern with Kalamazoo as the only show after this in Western Michigan was back here on 11.11.1998 which we have covered previously. Van Andel Arena is quite similar to Wings Stadium in look and feel (inside anyway as Wings is quite uniquely shaped) as it too is the home ice for a hockey team, the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL. Now, I’m just going to get this out of the way right up front: I was on the floor for this show camped out within arm’s reach of the rail in front of Page. Anyone except for the routine rail riders who do it every single show who claims that such visual proximity to the band will not have an influence of your enjoyment and subsequent recollection of the show is either lying to you to keep you from coming down front or stands there with eyes closed the entire time and really should go ahead and give way to those who would better benefit from such awesome sight lines. So yeah. Get ready for the fluffing! Oh, and feel free to follow along for at least the first set with this video though I warn you the sound on it is less than desirable and the camera person wasn’t exactly committed to a stable image or even clearing the shoulder of the person in front of him which is why you won’t be graced with more shots of my head, sadly.
The show starts with a fiery Chalkdust Torture that is all in bounds and not too dissimilar from the one in Lexington a few nights earlier while setting the tone for the evening as Trey takes a few laps around the fretboard. The good old Guelah Papyrus second song first set slot holds true tonight. Mike comes in early tonight with the fight bell as he and Trey draw out the intro a bit with the whistle wah fight bell combo. All good fun. Cars Trucks Buses follows this up making this the second show of the tour with this trio to open the show. The first time was 10.29.1996 in Tallahassee and it will pop up one more time later on in Vancouver on 11.23.1996. Closing this up they quickly drop into an on point ACDC Bag, frothing the fervor of the crowd even more along the way. I can tell you that I shared a moment with Page in this one as we locked eyes for what seemed like an eternity, him pounding away on the piano and me belting out the idiom-filled lines to the song as time stood still and we mentally made plans to go get a sandwich, maybe a cup of coffee or something after the show. Alas, I waited and waited but he never showed up and instead I scarfed down some horrible Taco Bell while trying to not nod off during the horrific blizzard as we started the long trek around the Great Lakes to get up to the Twin Cities for the show two nights later. He may have left me wanting but I will never forget that night, Page…
Um… so where was I? Right. Bag. So maybe as a nod to the moment Page and I shared or something they followed ACDC Bag with Sparkle, putting up a decent if not exactly FMS take on the song. This drops right into Brother, a tune that never seems to disappoint. For a song only ever played 58 times it sure showed up frequently in 1996, first having been busted out for the Ben & Jerry aided version at The Clifford Ball, with five total performances in this year (four of which come along this Fall Tour). Incidentally, the vast majority of those 58 performances came prior to its long wait on the bench as 43 of the performances came between its debut on 09.25.1991 and its final show before the 258 show gap on 08.02.1993 (which was itself a bustout after 143 shows). Anyway, that Brother rips and sets us up nicely for the Theme From The Bottom that follows. This Theme is pretty standard but they nail the transition to the jam and Trey does that shredding the peak thing we all seem to love so much. Our second Axilla of the tour pops in next and here we do not have those pesky guitar problems so they rock it out and finish it off with the Axilla II ending again before dropping into a set closing Runaway Jim. Having been mainly a first set opener so far this tour, getting a bit of that Jim jammery to finish things off is a nice change. They keep it at home, not going big time or anything but finishing a quite energetic set on a strong note. Now we have another opportunity to time Trey on his fifteen minute call for setbreak, knowing full well that this is a fool’s errand.
During the break the conversation you had was surely about how hot they are playing tonight as when you look back at that setlist you can’t help but notice that the only dip in the energy would have come from, what, Guelah? I mean, sure, the tempo is slower but with the fun they displayed there in doing the dance and playing around with their various toys it never felt like the energy waned at all. It’s the type of set that won’t get mentioned too much outside of this show review because nothing really stands out on its own but as a whole you could do a heck of a lot worse in putting together a fun as hell bunch of songs to get to to there. As you and your friends pore over this the lights drop – hey, maybe it really was a fifteen minute break! (it wasn’t) – and you get yourself right to get down to business for the second set. For the second time this tour they open with Timber (Jerry) which teases us with its oh-too-short middle jam (we are still more than a year away from the lengthy versions scattered through 1997) before they come back to the final verse and refrain. Trey drops into the opening for Divided Sky, making this the first of a few repeats from our visit to Auburn Hills two nights ago. Perhaps it had something to do with the unbelievable double rainbow we saw along the drive here that afternoon? I cannot be certain but the weather was quite stormy those few days in Michigan so it isn’t too big of a stretch to make that assumption. The interesting thing about these two Divideds is that musically they are quite similar. Yes, I know the bulk of the song is composed but the pauses are the same length (1:02) and Trey’s solo is very similar to my ears. The only noticeable difference is that they drop our first Secret Language in the pause, bringing out the All Fall Down signal to the confusion of the vast majority of people in the room. I recall hitting the deck and realizing no one else around me was doing the same and kinda slowly standing back up with feelings of eyes on me all around. That signal really never caught on, did it? Every time I’ve been at a show where they played it I only see a small handful of people actually act on it. I always have wanted that one to get the whole floor to drop just to see what the venue staff would do as a result. Oh well, I guess we are just too cool to pull off that big of a coordinated joke.
After working through Divided Sky Phish graces us with the second Gumbo of the tour, getting the dance vibe going in earnest once again. The notable thing here is Page’s end piano solo includes a quote of Maple Leaf Rag, that ragtime number written by Scott Joplin that probably reminds you of The Entertainer or the classic film The Sting (starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford amongst many others). It is a neat little nod and fits quite well in the context of Gumbo. Next up is The Curtain, that wonderful composed lead-in to impending jam vehicles like, um, Sample in a Jar? WTF? C’mon, Trey. That’s not cool at all. Hang on. They have played Curtain>Sample 11 times??? Geez, man, that’s not where we want Curtain to lead! Thankfully, after that head-shake-worthy move we do get that vehicle we expected in the form of Tweezer (video here!), our fifth of the tour. Pretty well right from the start you can tell this one is going places as once they hit the drop into the jam, Kuroda colors the stage blue, Trey drops into some funk rhythm comping, Mike hits the fight bell, and then Trey adds in our friend the whistle wah. They fall into this groove quite nicely and it becomes a bit of a stop/start jam with Trey adding in the whistle wah as Mike leads the jam. Watch that video and you can see how much Trey is enjoying this groove jam thing with that grin you know so well beaming off his face as he bobs his head and comps along. This is cowfunk before we knew that was even a thing! Before you know it, Kuroda is punctuating the whistle wahs with his lighting and the crowd joins in as well, something that works a lot better than the dreaded woos that a certain Tweezer from northern California in 2013 brought (back) into the scene. Eventually Trey doesn’t even have to hit the whistle wah trigger as Fish and the crowd are laying it down so that he can get in on the action with some more varied fills on the guitar. Page brings in the wobbly tone (which he also inserted between verses earlier) then moves to the organ as this groove matures, all with Mike still driving the bus in the lead role. Trey moves over to the mini-kit to let this groove continue to breathe. Mike notes his approval by inserting some more fight bell action in time with the beat Fish and Trey are laying down while still leading the way. Trey moves back to the guitar and immediately takes charge, pushing us away from the groove and into a more traditional Tweezer-type jam, soaring to the eventual old school slow down Tweezer ending. I know I have Show Attendance Bias with this one but this is a seriously funky Tweezer. It is yet another example of the sound changing right in front of our eyes on this tour and a jam I could listen to on a loop. Here it sounds so fresh — because it is. The video really helps to show how much they just got down and into it from the drop. It isn’t a version you hear people point to very often when discussing the roots of cowfunk (what, you don’t have those conversations with your friends? PFFFT!) but damn if it doesn’t fit the mold. I need a smoke.
Sensing the need for a bit of a breather Phish plays Swept Away>Steep for the second time in as many shows and putting that pair in a six-way tie for third on the list of most played songs this tour at seven appearances (and all of those other songs were also played this show: CDT, CTB, Waste, and Sample – way to keep it fresh, Trey!). After this quick slow down they drop right into Maze, playing another fiery version heavy on the shred but perhaps not quite as big as the one a couple of nights ago in Champaign. Now in the latter part of the set, the band starts up Contact for what will surely be the start of the end proceedings. This road song is a clear nod to the impending almost 600 mile drive to come around the lakes and up to Minneapolis (I am still not sure why they didn’t have a Chicago area show on that off night but whatever) and it gets paired up with the other typical road song, Slave to the Traffic Light, in capping this set. Now, you are probably saying to yourself, “hey, I bet that isn’t too uncommon for them to play those songs together like that” but you would be wrong, mister. This is the first time they ever did it! And they have only done it once since on 08.13.2010 at Deer Creek where it served as the encore before a similarly northwesterly cannonball run up to Alpine Valley for the next night’s show (note that there is only one Slave, Contact ever which occurred way back on 02.18.1989 in Newmarket, NH). Considering these two songs have been around since 1988 (Contact) and 1984 (Slave) it is even more surprising that there are only 19 shows where both songs appear (I’ll let you find that list if you really are that interested in such minutiae…). The pairing is fun but not exactly revelatory stuff and then we are starting to gather our marbles and coats and such while we wait for the encore to start. Tonight gives us, thankfully, the only ever Waste, Cavern encore pairing (they are late first set buddies for 02.16.1997). Look, those are both fine enough songs I guess (I won’t bring up my Cavern issues right now but let’s just say the song follows me, okay?) but paired together for the encore just ain’t what this cosmonaut is looking for in an encore. I know encores can be as much about cooling down a hot crowd as giving us a big exclamation point to send us out the door so I’ll just leave at that.
And how are we feeling about this show? It pretty well fits the mold of Fall ’96 so far with a strong if not jammy first frame followed by a nicely flowing second set that has at least one big takeaway jam to it. The band is truly connected at this point of the tour and you can tell they are feeling good about where things are headed as they dip their proverbial toes into the groove jam waters. This Tweezer is another of the formative jams leading to the big changes in 1997 but the balance of the show is firmly in the mode that we have been hearing up until now: super tight band communication, big time energy, and some bits of percussive jamming. And here’s to more of this formula going forward because it is working for the band. Your takeaways tonight are Divided (I had to include one of the past two as they are both quite good) and Tweezer with Gumbo being the add-in for the fun ragtime teasery. Rest up and be careful on that drive over to Minnesota, fans, cuz there’s more weather brewing. And as my wife likes to shout to the cars leaving the lots while we unwind after shows, “don’t pass them, let them pass you!” I know. It doesn’t make sense to me either…